Recently, two hashtags have become rather big and I have followed both with keen interest. The first, primarily in the UK, was #grabbed, started by Everyday Sexism author Laura Bates. She uses it to document first-hand accounts of unwanted sexual touching by men on women (which is assault in the US, by the way). The second, #YesAllWomen, is primarily in the US and was started in response to the shootings in Santa Barbara, when it came out that the perpetrator may have lashed out due to anger about being rejected by women. This hashtag has morphed, and is now either women explaining why we still have feminism or gender rights, or else telling their first hand experiences with sexual harassment.
If you're not on Twitter, or up on these sorts of things, I'd like to explain why I think both of these hashtags matter - especially for those of us who are people of faith, and who are raising children.
A lot of people I follow, conservatives especially, associate the hashtags with liberal 'victimhood' and are deriding it as more feminist man-bashing. But I want to really expand the conversation: even if it was started by those with politics you'd disagree with, what it is bringing out is far more important. It is bringing out story after story of common every-day sexual harassment. Far from the almost-voyeuristic depiction of stranger-rape that is broadcast across America every night via shows like Law and Order: SVU, these stories are showing us that harassment and assault is more common, which is to my mind, more insidious.
Women report men grabbing up their skirts on city buses, being explicitly propositioned while walking down the street, and being unable to repel a man's advances except by leaving or pretending to have a boyfriend/husband. What should concern us isn't that this is painting men in a bad light, but that this is happening to people: that women are not being protected enough to go about their daily business and that there is apparently a wide swath of men who are not being taught how to treat women.
I realize that if you are a woman who does not experience this, it is very tempting to dismiss this as only happening in isolation to other women - or worse, not really happening at all! "Please," you think, "maybe this happens to women who go out to shady bars, who dress inappropriately, who are in a bad area. But not all women!" I get it; I don't experience this like I did when I was young: I'm fatter, wiser, and live in the suburbs! I don't take public transportation, I am rarely out late, I mostly dress conservatively, and most of the time, I am at home with my child or at work in my office (and I work in a very pro-woman environment, thankfully). But I want to assure you - this is happening. It's happening to women who are in an office workplace, walking down the street in jeans, sitting at a bus stop in a popular crowded shopping area. This is not someone else's problem; it's yours. Because any act of injustice should strengthen our resolve to do what we can to right it - as Catholics, as people, as women.
What should be stunning is the degree to which these experiences seem common across boundaries. All over the developed and civilized world, women are being treated as sexual objects by men: no matter how we look or dress or behave. Read these hashtags, read the accounts of women, and realize that the large majority of women live or have lived with on-going sexual harassment by male strangers or coworkers or friends. The causes of this reality I cannot begin to speculate on - better people can do it with much more grace - but I think we should use this massive truth-telling spree to think about how we are forming our young men and women.
For those of you with young boys, I hope you educate them early and often that they must be respectful of another person's body. Please instill in them chivalry: that many women are indeed weaker, physically, than most men and that they should be aware that their strength can quickly become intimidating if used indiscriminately. Masculine strength is something we are badly in need of in this world - tell them that! But teach them that the strongest man is the one with the most self-control (I think Leila Miller said that); that they are not truly free if they cannot control their own actions. Teach them that they must respect all people, regardless of dress or behavior, because that is what Christ calls us to do. Don't regularly talk about how women dress inappropriately, etc. - they will know that by how you dress yourself and how you tell them to dress. Call attention to positive examples rather than negative! Help them to train their eyes to look at girl's faces, to speak to them kindly, to never engage in talking down of any person behind closed doors. Gossiping among faithful young people is as dangerous and unfortunately, often common, as it is among their parents - help fight that, because it dehumanizes and disrespects a child of God.
For your girls, please teach them from a young age that their 'no' should be respected. Always - from the time they are young. This means on the playground, don't tell them the boy who overpowered them despite their protestations did it "because he likes you." That may be how young boys are trying to express affection, but it's never too early to teach appropriate behavior - not by suing or getting anybody kicked out of school! - just by gentle explaining and repeated reinforcement. As they get older, commiserate with their experience and knowledge, explain to them expressly what is wrong. A lot of men took advantage of me as a young girl because I didn't realize precisely what was wrong - borderline inappropriate behaviors became more aggressive because I hesitated in my confusion.
I also will say, that I do not think it is wrong to teach young girls modesty. Modesty - both physical and emotional - is a help not only to the young woman, who is protecting her body and her heart, but to those who are losing their battle with concupiscence. Now, we lock the doors on our houses not because we feel our houses are shameful, but because they are valuable - and not because we think everyone is a robber, but because we don't want to issue open invitations to rob, either. Dressing in a manner that is seasonally appropriate but still being conscious of how precious we are is always necessary for girls. WHAT ABOUT BOYS, some of you are shouting. Yes, of course, boys - but usually less of a struggle for boys since society doesn't market them clothing designed to make them sex objects, but rather to be cool dudes doing whatever they want to do (video games, skateboarding, etc.). It's just harder with girls because our consumerist machine makes clothing to perpetuate men seeing them as sex objects.
I realize that this conversation can make some people feel paranoid or upset generally. I don't think the point is to raise our children in an atmosphere of fear; to the contrary, they should feel brave and strong in doing what is right. But I do not think being naive on this subject helps. Please don't think that your lifestyle protects your children - or you - from other's sins. The point isn't to live in fear, but to be conscious about the fact that our society is quite warped in its thinking about sex and it's no surprise this is showing up in relationships between men and women all over. Being smart about these issues is not political; it's just necessary at this point.
PS I hope it goes without saying that I don't really identify as a feminist, since I see the 'feminist' movement as it is called, responsible for more or less the downfall of the family. I advocate for the dignity of persons, male or female, in any case where it is being violated - in other words, I'm Catholic.